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Justin Time

by Doug Ward / Los Angeles Kings

Its three days before the Kings will honor former player Jay Wells with a retro night at STAPLES Center, and vintage purple and gold gear hangs inside Justin Williams’ locker at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo.

“I like it a lot,” the 32-year-old Williams says. “Old-school. Vintage. Traditional.”

Williams is referring to the classic crown-adorned gear he and his teammates will be wearing in a few nights, but he could just as well be talking about himself. The right winger is a two-time Stanley Cup winner who is still thirsty for a third, a man who overcame injuries that could have ended or significantly diminished his career on more than one occasion, and a player who is at his best in big games. He is also a guy that played in last year’s playoffs with a partially separated shoulder.

Yes, Williams regularly wears the Kings streamlined modernistic black and white gear, but he would have been right at home alongside Marcel Dionne in regal purple or next to Wayne Gretzky in intimidating silver and black.

Anytime, it seems is Justin time. Williams just fits, wherever, whenever he plays.

Earlier this season, Williams was honored for his longevity after scoring his 500th NHL point, an achievement only 411 NHL players before him have accomplished. But Williams, who is more quick than fast, didn’t slow down to enjoy the scenery while passing the milestone.

“I don’t do much reflecting right now because I want to have a lot of years left in this game,” Williams says. “When I am done, it will be something that I am proud of. I plan on building on that total over the next few years.”

Hockey, however, has always been a sport that appreciates longevity. Despite his own inclinations to the contrary, Williams understands why respecting long-term achievements runs so deep in the NHL’s DNA.

“It’s a hard league,” Williams says. “It’s certainly hard getting in, but it’s just as hard maintaining your status as an NHL player. There is always somebody trying to take your job, always someone that is gunning for you. That’s kind of what makes us who we are as professionals. You have to punch in everyday. You can’t rest on the satisfaction of what you have done previously.”

Williams’ previous credentials are substantial. In addition to being halfway to 1,000 career points, Williams has topped the 20-goal plateau four times. But no number is more relevant in describing Williams than two: that’s the number of times his name has been engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Whether Williams is a good luck charm or a master of good timing is open to debate. What remains, as fact, is that Williams joined two separate franchises during a rebuilding phase and was a key contributor when both claimed their first Cup. Williams had 18 postseason points in helping Carolina win the Cup in 2006, then, two years ago, he had 15 playoff points in the Kings history-making championship drive.

“I feel extremely fortunate that teams believed in me enough to help build their team,” Williams says. “When I went to Carolina, the team was in a rebuilding process. We came out of the lockout and had a fresh team and we were able to go all the way.”

Six years later he was again skating with the Cup as a King. Williams says being a part of hockey history in Los Angeles was mostly a case of being in the right place at the right time.

“When I got traded here they were in one of the phases of rebuilding, but more toward the end of it,” Williams says. “They were just about to make the transition from being a rebuilding team to being a contending team. I am very fortunate that the GM’s had a lot of faith in me and trusted me and wanted me on their teams.”

It’s not difficult to entrust a player that performs best on the biggest stage. Williams has scored goals in four consecutive Game 7 appearances, including two goals in the Kings Game 7 win over San Jose in last spring’s Western Conference Semifinals. In doing so, Williams became the first player in NHL history to score at least one goal in each of his first four Game 7 appearances.

“I think you learn a lot about who you are as a player and where your limits are,” Williams says. “When it is you or them, you learn how high you can go. That is what Game 7 is about.”

After Williams broke a scoreless tie with a goal at 4:11 of the second period, he added an insurance marker three minutes later to give the Kings all the offense they would need in a 2-1 win over the Sharks on May 28, 2013. The headlines wrote themselves: Williams takes over game. But Williams says that is an oversimplification that misses the nuance of hockey.

“I certainly would not characterize myself as taking a game over,” he says. “To be good in this league you have to have confidence, you need to have a little swagger about your capabilities. Sometimes you feel like you should make every play out there. It doesn’t always happen. Yes, I was able to help the team win by scoring a couple goals but you would be writing a different story if they had tied the game up and won in overtime.”

After winning the Cup and advancing to hockey’s final four in their past two campaigns, Williams believes the Kings have developed a certain swagger as a team. When the Kings raised that Stanley Cup banner before last season’s opener, the team’s standards were lifted right with it.

“We have built, within ourselves over the last few years, the feeling that anything less than a Stanley Cup championship is unacceptable,” Williams says. “That’s the feeling you want going in to a season. Anyone can say that they are a contender, but we feel and know there is some truth about it with us. When push comes to shove and it is us or them, we feel we are going to come out on top all the time. I think that comes with winning and that comes with confidence.”

After falling to eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago in five games last year, Williams says he and his Kings teammates feel like the Blackhawks took something that was rightfully theirs.

“When Chicago won it, it felt like someone took something away from us,” Williams says. “You felt like you had something and they grabbed it from you and it leaves a sour taste. We had something taken away last year and we want it back.”

Although he is never regarded as fast in scouting reports, it’s not uncommon for Williams to look like the speediest guy on the ice as he darts in and out of traffic.

“I wouldn’t say I am one of the fast guys on the ice, but I am one of the quickest if you can differentiate between the two,” he says. “I am able to get into spaces and battle for pucks, use my hockey IQ.”

In addition to his feel for the game, Williams also has a lot of common sense and a great big chip on his shoulder.

“I think the success I have had as a hockey player is from trying to prove people wrong,” he says. “Show someone that you are good enough, that you are better than them, that you belong. That arrogance, I guess, has gotten me where I am and kept me where I am.”

A series of injuries forced Williams to become introspective.

“I had a rough go of about three or four years with injuries,” Williams says. “In your downtime, you begin to reflect and think about what the next step is and how bad you want to come back. You make that decision when you are doing your rehab. Are you just going to rehab to come back, or are you going to come back better and stronger to prove people wrong that said ‘You can’t come back and you can’t be the player you once were.’”

In addition to his own inner dialogue, Williams has also heard outside voices.

“For me, hockey is a game about proving the people who don’t believe in me wrong, and proving the people who do believe in me right.”

Williams was determined enough to return from a torn Achilles tendon (suffered during off-ice training) in a mere 11-and-a-half weeks back in 2008. Williams says returning to hockey after an Achilles injury is much different from returning to other sports.

“An Achilles for a hockey player is a lot different than an Achilles for a baseball player or a basketball player – guys that are always jumping, using their calves,” Williams says. “As a hockey player, your ankle is in that boot and it’s not moving. Your calf is not a muscle that you are using; certainly you need it for balance. That’s the reason I was able to come back a little quicker as opposed to someone else.”

In addition to that uncommon work ethic, Williams is blessed with perspective. He has been traded twice over the course of his NHL career, and each time he was proud enough to use the rejection as motivation, but also wise enough to realize the trades might work out for the best. In the end, he contributed to a pair of Stanley Cup championships.

“Going to Carolina (from Philadelphia) was a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I got a new opportunity, a fresh start. Every time I go back there, I am appreciative of what they did for me. But time marches on and you move on. I said a couple times, it’s kind of like seeing an ex-girlfriend. You say ‘hi,’ and kind of want to show them on the ice you still got it. At the same time, you are happy with the way things turned out. For me, the two trades that I have been involved with are two of the best things that ever happened to me.”

After a dozen NHL seasons and those 500 points, Williams still believes the best is yet to come. The reason he remains hungry for a third Cup, he says, is because nothing compares to the feeling of touching so many people.

“You want to win it for the guys you are playing with,” Williams says. “But (in Los Angeles), you also win it for the fans that have been cheering for 45-plus years, since 1967-68. You win it for those people who have been cheering since day one, for your family and friends who have been supporting you since you started playing. You win it for those people and when you see everybody jubilant and genuinely happy, that’s what makes everything worth it.”

Another championship would complete a personal Stanley Cup hat trick for Williams that would be, fittingly, frozen in time.

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